When is a league not a league? When circumstances force a change of format to a straight knockout mode.
Earlier this week saw the launch of the newly renamed Co-Op Superstores Munster Hurling Cup, featuring five of the province’s six counties over the next three weekends.
This Saturday, Colm Bonnar and Stephen Molumphy take charge of Tipperary and Kerry respectively for the first time as the teams clash in a quarter-final tie in Austin Stack Park in Tralee.
The prize for the winners is a semi-final against back-to-back All-Ireland champions Limerick – who won the last Munster HL, in 2020 – in the TUS Gaelic Grounds the following Friday. The same night, Clare host Waterford in the other semi-final, with the final taking place on Saturday, January 22.
Speaking at the launch at the Raheen branch of Co-op SuperStores, Munster Council chairperson Liam Lenihan said: “The Munster Council is pleased to facilitate this pre-season competition for our counties as it provides participating teams with a great opportunity to prepare for the very competitive Allianz League starting in early February.
“Great work is been done by coaching and games development in all Munster counties and this competition gives counties the opportunity to introduce exciting young talent in to their team set-up and give them a flavour of the standards required at the top level.”
That sums things up in a nutshell – the winners won’t be taking the cup around the schools and giving children half-days but the players blooded in January could prove to be valuable squad members come the summertime.
You’ll notice that there is one Munster county not competing this year and that of course is Cork, with the team holiday creating a scheduling conflict.
Given that last year went well with a young squad and there are players from the successful U20 teams of 2020 and 2021 to come on stream, there’s less of a need to unearth rough diamonds so the absence from the competition is not likely to be fatal.
It’s interesting to note that, across the five years of this competition, and the 11 of the Waterford Crystal Cup that preceded it, Cork came out on top just once and that in 2017.
Back then, the county was at a low ebb after Kieran Kingston’s first year in charge ended with a qualifier defeat to Wexford and the external expectations were low.
However, with Mark Coleman, Luke Meade, Shane Kingston and Darragh Fitzgibbon all featuring in the starting line-up, Cork had a 100 percent record in the round-robin stages, recording four wins – Tipperary didn’t take part. Then, they overcame Limerick by 1-21 to 0-20 in the final in the Gaelic Grounds.
Coleman and Kingston had made their debuts in the Wexford loss but that quartet were essentially newcomers and the continued to gain experience during the national league as Cork won three of their five games.
While it might have seemed like a gamble to select those four in the championship opener away to reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary that May, the fact that they had been given game-time since January stood to them and Cork recorded a victory that led to them going on to claim the Munster title and reaching the All-Ireland semi-final.
In the Waterford Crystal Cup, which included third-level college sides as well as counties, Cork reached the final in 2007, 2011 and 2015 but lost on all three occasions, to Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick respectively. Illustrating how good early-season performances can’t be taken as an absolute guide, Cork didn’t make it beyond the All-Ireland quarter-finals in any of those seasons, with the teams at various stages of development.
Would Cork have entered if the holiday wasn’t scheduled for mid-January? Perhaps, but the fact that the retirements of Eoin Cadogan, Colm Spillane and Bill Cooper have created room in the panel for the U20 stars means that there will be opportunities to shine when the national league comes into view, something which isn’t too far away at all. And anyway, there was no pre-season competition last year and it didn’t prove to be an impediment.